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The Convert Kings: Power and Religious Affiliation in Early Anglo-Saxon England.

The Convert Kings: Power and Religious Affiliation in Early Anglo-Saxon England. By N. J. Higham. Manchester. Manchester University Press, 1997. 293 pp. $24.95.

In this study, N. J. Higham examines the role of Christian conversion in the political policies and dynastic intrigue of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon kings. The author's study focuses on the reigns of those kings--Aethelberht of Kent, and the Northumbrian Kings Edwin of Deira and Oswald and Oswin of the Bernician royal house--whom Bede terms in his Historia Ecclesiastica as "overkings," in order to reveal the context in which those powerful rulers accepted conversion or otherwise patronized the early Christian church.

In his interpretation, Higham sees religious conversion as a deliberate and calculated tool that often augments royal ambition rather than being a genuine spiritual transformation of the individual monarchs. Christianity in essence serves as an instrument to further the power wielded by the bretwalda. Higham seeks to define a growing symbiosis in the church-state relationship in which royal protection and patronage of the early Christian missionary effort provided the kings with a means of increased control over a growing Christian community within England. Such benefits motivated these rulers to accept the presence of early church missions. In turn, an awareness of such benefits gave missionaries like Augustine greater leverage to persuade the leadership of English kingdoms to accept baptism and tolerate the new religion within their realms.

Higham thus emphasizes the growing ambition of the overking rather than the persistent missionary activity of the Church as the decisive force in the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England. In essence, the Anglo-Saxon rulers came to appreciate the value of the Church and Christian ritual in reinforcing and expanding kingship.

As a study of power and religious affiliation in Anglo-Saxon England, this work is well-researched, though occasionally overreliant on sources grounded in a Christian perspective. Higham professes a social anthropological approach to his study, using recent research from this discipline to enhance his own understanding of the utility of religious affiliation for the early English kings. Because of the limited nature of his primary sources, however, the author sometimes appears to weave a scenario when sufficient historical evidence is lacking, thus making his case within the overall context of recorded events. Though this deficiency weakens his argument at certain points, the overall thrust of Higham's thesis is sound and provides a fresh and valuable perspective on an otherwise ambiguous period of English kingship.


Hardin-Simmons University Abilene, Texas

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Taylor, Donathan
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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